In the three weeks since the first authorized safe consumption sites (SCS) in the US began operating, the two New York City sites prevented at least 63 overdoses and been accessed more than 2,000 times by 396 different participants.
SCS are safe spaces where people can use state-banned drugs with trained peers and staff on hand to provide services, including overdose prevention if needed. Overdoses can be reversed with naloxone, or in some cases averted by simply administrating supplemental oxygen.
On December 20, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) released a statement confirming that OnPoint NYC’s two locations, in East Harlem and Washington Heights, had prevented at least 59 overdoses. At least four more were prevented in the time between the publication of that statement and this article.
A representative for the sites told Filter that seven overdoses were reversed with naloxone, while the remaining opioid-involved overdoses were averted using other interventions. Nineteen of the 63 overdoses were described as stimulant-involved.
In 2018, DOHMH estimated that authorizing four sites could “conservatively avert up to 130 overdoses” per year. At the rate demonstrated over the past three weeks, four authorized sites would avert more than 2,000 overdoses per year.
OnPoint NYC is the newly formed nonprofit comprising East Harlem’s New York Harm Reduction Educators and Washington Heights Corner Project, both of which were providing New Yorkers with harm reduction services like sterile syringes and and blood-borne disease testing before Mayor Bill de Blasio authorized them to operate SCS on November 30. OnPoint now operates the SCS at both locations.
The two sites are officially called overdose prevention centers (OPC), a term which is sometimes used interchangeably with SCS and other terms like supervised injection sites. The term OPC is often used because the public views it more favorably than the others, though in some contexts—particularly in Canada—it can refer to a more drug user-led pop-up style of site, rather than a more medicalized, full-service one.
The city’s political climate has changed.
More than 100 authorized SCS operate around the world. None of these sites have ever recorded any fatalities.
In July, Rhode Island achieved the first US legalization of SCS by authorizing a two-year pilot program, but has not yet begun operating any authorized sites. NYC’s own SCS had been in limbo since 2018, when then-Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped in to block their opening following de Blasio’s initial authorization.
But the city’s political climate has changed. De Blasio is preparing to leave his current office, and incoming Mayor Eric Adams has expressed his own support for SCS. Governor Kathy Hochul, inaugurated in August, has signed bills decriminalizing syringes for drug use and guaranteeing people in jail and prisons access to medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD).
Hochul has yet to sign a bill that would prohibit Medicaid from requiring prior authorizations for MOUD, and has pushed back NY’s timeline for ending its AIDS epidemic from 2020 to 2024.
New York City recorded 2,062 overdose deaths in 2020, with Black residents disproportionately affected.
The Biden administration, despite signaling openness to harm reduction, has not yet declared a public stance on SCS.
Photograph of East Harlem overdose prevention center by Helen Redmond